x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Saudi troops begin to pull out of Bahrain

60 military vehicles and three buses said to be seen leaving as Saudi Arabia is due to begin a partial withdrawal on Monday of its 1,200 National Guard troops in Bahrain, leaving a smaller, residual emergency force in place.

RIYADH // Saudi Arabia will begin a partial withdrawal on Monday of its 1,200 National Guard troops in Bahrain, leaving a smaller, residual emergency force in place, a Saudi source said.

A message posted yesterday by Nabil Al Hammar, an adviser to Bahrain's king, said the Saudi-led military force will reposition units within Bahrain, but there are no plans to fully withdraw the troops that helped quell Shiite-led protests in March.

The message, reported by Associated Press, gave no further details. But it left open the possibility of reducing its 1,500-strong force.

Reached by telephone yesterday, Sheikh Abdullah Al Khalifa, of Bahrain's Information Ministry, did not deny reports about the GCC troop reduction, saying only that "there is no official statement" about it.

But there are indications that preparations for the withdrawal are already under way, according to Bahraini opposition sources.

One Bahraini, who requested anonymity, said that witnesses reported seeing about 60 military vehicles and three buses leaving Bahrain for Saudi Arabia on Monday night. In addition a number of empty military trailers were seen entering Bahrain, possibly to pick up military vehicles to transport back to Saudi, he added.

In Saudi Arabia, a military official said some units will be pulled out next week, but gave no details on how many troops would remain in Bahrain. The official, said Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to media.

The Saudi troops were sent to Bahrain in March amid unprecedented pro-reform protests to support the royal family.

Saudi Arabia was alarmed by the mainly Shiite protest movement in Bahrain, which beginning in February began calling for a constitutional monarchy and eventually escalated to demands for the downfall of the royal family.

Analysts said Riyadh feared that predominantly Shiite Iran could take advantage of the unrest to promote its ties with the protesters and help bring down Bahrain's Sunni-minority ruling family.

The Saudi deployment was billed as an activation of the Gulf Cooperation Council's Peninsula Shield military forces in order to assist a fellow GCC state. The United Arab Emirates also deployed 500 policemen as part of the same GCC force.

The Saudi forces, which Saudi and Bahraini officials said were intended to protect vital Bahraini installations, were mostly kept out of sight on Bahraini military bases after their arrival on March 14.

They did not actively participate in the Bahraini government's harsh crackdown on the protesters which commenced March 15 with the declaration of a state of emergency.

More than 30 people were killed in the violent clashes in March. Hundreds of Shiites have been detained, scores tried before military courts and up to possibly 2,000 were fired from their jobs or dismissed from university.

There have also been numerous reports of torture of detainees during the crackdown.

The Saudi troop reduction, first reported yesterday by Reuters, will coincide with the start of a long-awaited national dialogue set to begin Saturday, which the Bahraini government hopes will restore at least a semblance of normality if not a reduction in tensions.

The main Shiite opposition party, Wefaq, has not yet decided to participate in the dialogue, as it objects to the structure of the meeting.

Instead of the government negotiating with already established political groups, the dialogue has been organised so that pro-government, Sunni organisations are to hold discussions with groups representing Shiites, principally Wefaq.

In addition, many opposition leaders will not attend as they are incarcerated, serving out long prison sentences handed down for their participation in the pro-reform protests.

In the current climate of hostility between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority, it is unlikely that such discussions will be fruitful, said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

"I don't think it will succeed," he said, noting that "the government is not represented" in the dialogue. He accused the government of arranging the talks so that it appears that Sunnis and Shias are fighting each other as a way of masking a political impasse between the government and the people.

cmurphy@thenational.ae